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Critical Preferences

Originally posted Feb 2010 at http://www.criticalrationalism.net/2010/02/28/critical-preferences/

What problem is the idea of a “critical preference” intended to solve? (And how does it solve it?) I think the problem is this:
We form theories to solve our problems, and we criticize them. Sometimes we decisively refute a theory. If this leaves us with exactly one theory standing, there is no problem, we should prefer that theory.

Refutations can be hard to create. Often there are several theories offered as solutions to one problem, which contradict each other, but which are not decisively refuted. What are we to do then? The intellectual answer is to invent new criticisms. That may take years, so there is a pragmatic problem: we must get on with our life, and some of our decisions, today, may depend on these theories.

The idea of a critical preference is aimed to solve the pragmatic problem: how should we proceed while there is a pending conflict between non-refuted theories?
Popper proposes (without using the term “critical preference”) that we can form a critical preference for one theory, and proceed using that theory in preference to the others. The critical preference should be for whichever theory best stands up to criticism, or in Popper’s words the theory that “in the light of criticism, appears to be better than its competitors” (C&R p 74). Popper writes something similar in Objective Knowledge, p 82 (see also pages 8, 16, 22, 41, 67, 95, 103). Similarly, Firestone wrote, “The best problem solution is the competitive alternative that best survives criticism.”

(How we judge which theories are better, or best survive criticism, is another question, and Popper gives various guidance (e.g. C&R p 74, and the idea of corroboration), as does Deutsch (e.g. his recommendation to prefer explanations that are hard to vary), but I’m not interested in that here.)

Would others here agree that this is the problem and solution of critical preferences? (My purpose here is that I think it is mistaken, and I want to get the theory right prior to offering criticism. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood it.)

Follow up post: http://curi.us/1489-critical-preferences-and-strong-arguments

Elliot Temple on July 11, 2013

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